My Back Pages: Edith Wharton’s “Summer”

I’ve been re-reading Edith Wharton’s Summer over the past few days, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Wharton’s writing in Summer is clear and elegant, as always, but the subject matter is surprisingly frank and dark for 1917. The story takes place in a desolate small town in rural Massachusetts, where a young woman’s romance with a more worldly man plays out (to a heart-rending conclusion) against the background of a summertime Berkshires landscape.

The novel’s ill-fated heroine, Charity Royall, has had her share of misfortune before the story even begins. She’s an intriguing character: beautiful, but marginalized within her insular community, proud and lonely, possessing only a rudimentary education, nearly inarticulate about her feelings yet highly sensitive to her surroundings. This passage, describing the summer countryside through Charity’s perceptions, is full of colors and smells. It also hints (well, more than hints) at other sensual pleasures to follow.

…Charity Royall lay on a ridge above a sunlit hollow, her face pressed to the earth and the warm currents of the grass running through her. Directly in her line of vision a blackberry branch laid its frail white flowers and blue-green leaves against the sky. Just beyond, a tuft of sweet-fern uncurled between the beaded shoots of the grass, and a small yellow butterfly vibrated over them like a fleck of sunshine. This was all she saw; but she felt, above her and about her, the strong growth of the beeches clothing the ridge, the rounding of pale green cones on countless spruce-branches, the push of myriads of sweet-fern fronds in the cracks of the stony slope below the wood, and the crowding shoots of meadowsweet and yellow flags in the pasture beyond. All this bubbling of sap and slipping of sheaths and bursting of calyxes was carried to her on mingled currents of fragrance. Every leaf and bud and blade seemed to contribute its exhalation to the pervading sweetness in which the pungency of pine-sap prevailed over the spice of thyme and the subtle perfume of fern, and all were merged in a moist earth-smell that was like the breath of some huge sun-warmed animal.

You can view the entire text of Wharton’s Summer at Wikisource, but I also recommend that you find a used copy of it in a bookstore and read it outdoors in the summer heat.

Images: John White Alexander, A King’s Daughter, via Wikimedia; first edition of Summer via Whitmore Rare Books

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9 thoughts on “My Back Pages: Edith Wharton’s “Summer”

  1. Dang, talk about metaphors, lol! I love old fiction and am currently reading Enchanted April. This E Wharton is going on my to read list.

  2. I’d like to read something by Edith Wharton. I have seen the house in Lenox where she lived. Actually it’s a mansion, not a house. It’s being restored but money is tight for the endeavor. The grounds are beautiful with picture perfect gardens. It’s easy to see from the writing how the landscape influenced her.

    1. Oh, Poodle, you’re in for a treat! I read “Ethan Frome” in high school, but I really fell in love (later) with “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth,” her short stores, and “Summer,” of course…
      I’ve never been to The Mount in Lenox, but I’ve read a bit about its recent past and its money troubles. I hope it will be restored to its former glory someday!

  3. What a treat, J! I’ve been re-reading Summer as well, and I’m just as enchanted by it as you are.

    My favorite from Wharton is “The House of Mirth,” with “The Age of Innocence” as a close rival. But the

  4. So many of Edith’s stories skim autobiography, if you want a delightful read about EW, try the YA biography The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge. It includes dozens of photographs. Really only the publication requirements like page/type size and where photos are placed make this YA. It will enrich your reading of her work.

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